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Interesting Etymologies 23: Insults

"Hello again Word Lovers!" and today lots of insults! Please be warned, obviously, this episode and article features some slurs and insults and are presented here for scholarly purposes only.

Some Insults of Nationality:


We begin with the large array of words used in English for people from Germany. The fact there are so many is a result of the two major military conflict between the two countries in the twentieth century.

Gerry/Jerry is simply a shortened form of German (similar to "Jap" for Japanese and "Nip" from Nippon - Japan in Japanese - discover some English words with Japanese etymology in IE13). This is a common way to create a pejorative from a country name in English language.

The Bosch - This comes from a French insult meaning "head of a cabbage". It is a Portmanteau (discover more recent Portmanteaus in IE5.2) of Allemand and Kabosch. The result is "Cabbage Head"

Kraut - Similarly Kraut emerges from Sauerkraut which means "Sour Vegetable", vegetables iin vinegar being a typical German dish.

The habit of creating pejoratives for nationalities via food is very common in many languages and cultures. The French use "chips" to refer to the Belgians, Portuguese might be referred to as as "Squid muncher", The British/English are referred to as "Roast Beef" (again by the French) but we do have our revenge!

The Hun - A generalised word for enemy in English.

The British

Welsh :

Taffs - after the river Taff, another pejorative structure from a local landmark


Jock - A typical name


Paddy/Mick - again popular or typical names becoming a generic label.


Obviously in a study of English language use we do not have slurs for Englishness but we are sure there are plenty to be had in other languages, feel free to share some with us! Our examples include:

Lesrosbif (The Roast Beef) - is a French slur for the English

Guiri - a Spanish slur for the English, although is widely used for tourists or settlers from the north of Europe in general. People who resist integration into Spanish culture and go red in the sun or behave loutishly when on holiday. The etymology is uncertain but one such theory is it is derived from Guiristina, Cristina, Carlista (Supporters of Carlos María Isidro de Borbón)

Limey - An insult for Brits or English from Australia because the British Navy adopted the trick of using lime to avoid scurvy on the long voyages.

Briton/Brit is not a pejorative but a simple descriptor even if some of our Celtic cousins' political persuasions might leave them feeling slurred by such a word!

The Spanish

Dago - Of unknown origin, possibly because many Spanish people were name Diego. Often used with the adjective "greasy" as an observation of the fashion to use oils to keep hair slick. Dago can be used to refer to Italians and Portuguese as well.

Spaniard - Important to note, this IS NOT an insult, despite the persistent belief that it is used in a pejorative fashion. Much like "Briton", it is a geographic descriptor and nothing more.


Yankee - There are many competing theories on the etymology of the word Yankee. It has been traced back to 1758 in written language when a military officer wrote he had received a company of Yankees. In those days it probably was used to refer to people from New England or New York. It is understood to be of Dutch origin, Yan being John and they smelt of cheese (Kaas) hence Yan Kaas but there are other potential explanations that are maybe not as much fun!

Yankee is generally understood to mean people from the northern states of the US and became entrenched as such during the civil war although as we all know "Yankee" is used around the world as a slang word for Americans in general.

The French

Frogs - A clear example of an eating habit insult.

The Italians

Wops - A possible root for this is from W.o.P (Without Passport) emerging from the time of the mass emigration to America or adapted from guapo(s) (handsome in Spanish) which is unconvincing due to the Spanish origin and obviously the rather positive nature of calling people handsome!

General Insults:

Swerve - to avoid - has common use in London but can be traced back to middle English. A bedswerver meaning an adulterer. Swerve emanates from Old English sweorfan which means to leave. A modern counterpart might be a "dodger". For example an overweight person might be called "a salad dodger" or an elderly person labelled "a coffin dodger".

Pejoratives for professionals:

Carpenter - Chippy - chipping off wood

Electrician - Spark/Sparky - causing sparks

These have become near standard use and should probably be described as slang or alternative nouns rather than insults yet:

Doctor .- Saw Bones - harking back to the pioneering days of surgery which could be rather gruesome. (Matasanos - Killer of the healthy in Spanish)

Civil Servant/Office Worker/Bureaucrat - Pen Pusher (Chupapintas - Ink sucker in Spanish)

Accountant - Bean Counter

A bad journalist - A Hack - Possibly from Dutch "Hakked" to break something into small pieces or be broken, but also Dutch for an old horse.

Pejoratives for forms of transport:

Talking of horses, an insult for a horse (yes!) is a "nag" which translates in Spanish as "Rocín" which may explain why Don Quixote's horse is called "Rocínante" which reached new levels of awareness in the Anglo-Saxon sphere when the characters in the science fiction drama "The Expanse" name their spaceship "Rocínante".

A bad/old car is a "banger" or less commonly a "jalopy" which has been traced to the USA around 1925 but of unknown origin.

Pejoratives for bad people:

His name is Mud! Someone has a terrible reputation or is not to be talked about. This is believed to be derived from the unfortunate Dr. Mudd who was unable to save Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated. Mudd was even accused of being a part of the conspiracy. This is not the earliest reference to this insult being used, in fact in 1823 Mud was defined as a "stupid twaddling fellow." in the Dictionary of the Turf. The expression 'And his name is mud!´ is even used in the entry.

Quisling : As an insult for those who cooperate with tyranny or betray a nation comes from Major Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian puppet governor under the Nazi occupation.

Shill : Someone who speaks to promote commercial or political interest rather than fact - from shillaber (1913) as a Carnival promoter.

Further Reading:

A recommended source for further study of insults is the Viz swearing dictionary "Roger's Profanisaurus" which is also now available as a mobile app for android and apple.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

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